When Will We Ever Learn?

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
– George Santayana

On 9/11, we were told “this changes everything.” The terror attacks on New York and Washington were painted as one-of-a-kind events without historical parallel. In reality, they were an all too familiar repeat performance. Our meddling in the affairs of other nations had backfired upon us yet again.

“Remember Pearl Harbor!” “Remember the Lusitania!” “Remember the Maine!” Each of these battle cries refers to very real events – and each refers to attacks (or, in the case of the Maine, a tragic disaster of uncertain origin) that would never have happened had America adhered to the wise counsel of Washington that “the great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is, in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible,” and Jefferson advising “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations – entangling alliances with none.”

Osama bin Laden’s “declaration of war” against the United States cited the following grievances: (1) occupation of Palestine and the blind American support of Israeli aggression; (2) the sanctions upon Iraq, which cost the lives of half a million innocents; (3) the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia. We can believe what we want about mass murderer bin Laden’s sincerity in invoking those grievances, but they resonated with the people of the Middle East and they allowed bin Laden to fund, recruit, train, and deploy an army of terrorists against America.

Is America to blame for the 9/11 attacks? No. Terrorists are responsible for their actions – and we are responsible for ours. America must cease putting “bad guys” on its “defense” payroll to fight other “bad guys.” When we finance and protect an Osama bin Laden, a Manuel Noriega, or a Saddam Hussein for our own purposes, we’re likely to find him at our throats for someone else’s purposes in the future.

America must forswear the killing of innocents and noncombatants, the torture of prisoners, and other atrocities in the name of “war.” Such atrocities create more enemies than they kill. They create new grievances, new wars, and yet more atrocities in kind.

America must cease attempting to police the world and solve its problems. We’ve got plenty of our own problems to solve. They require our attention – attention that the rest of the world doesn’t want.

Case in point: Iraq. Our presence there has become an echo of Vietnam – damned if we stay, damned if we don’t. We’ve destabilized the country so badly that there is no keeping it from chaos. The only reasonable course open to us at this point in time is to bring our soldiers back alive, rather than sacrificing more of them to the hopeless cause of settling the centuries-old feuds of others.

I live in Texas, where fire ants abound. Since I’m sensitive to their bites, I have a great incentive to exterminate them. But I don’t go into my neighbors’ yards to eradicate fire ants that might migrate to my yard. It would be an impossible task to eliminate all the fire ants in my neighborhood. Trying to tend my neighbors’ yards as well as my own would distract me from the most important task of all – keeping my own yard free of the little varmints. Driving fire ants from my neighbors’ yards will only encourage them to come into mine.

Consequently, I treat my yard and my yard only. When I go out, I wear shoes rather than sandals. I focus on keeping my yard free of fire ants and arming myself with shoes to minimize damage from any that I miss.

Fighting terrorism is a lot like fighting fire ants. We need to focus on keeping our country free of terrorists, rather than traipsing around the world trying to eradicate them in everybody else’s yard. When we invade other nations, such as Afghanistan and Iraq, we have fewer resources to stop the terrorists at home, and we desperately need those resources.

For example, the resources that have gone into “protecting” Europe and Japan could have gone into securing sites in America that were especially vulnerable to attack, improving the gathering of intelligence about potential threats and the transmission of information to potential victims, and training security forces to defend American territory rather than to invade other countries. Instead, the government failed to act on information about the suspicious number of visa-holders from Saudi Arabia and Egypt taking flying lessons in the United States, and even more incredibly, banned pilots from bringing guns onto planes in July 2001, publicly guaranteeing the safety of the hijackers.

Additionally, an immigration policy focused on limiting the number of Latino workers entering the country has overwhelmed the immigration service. The service focuses on peaceful people, promoting the development of underground railroads and other means of entering the country illegally. Tens of millions of people have become lawbreakers for either supporting or entering as illegal immigrants. Such individuals have little willingness to cooperate with authorities investigating potential terrorist threats. Indeed, their neighborhoods provide a place for terrorists to hide from authorities without attracting attention.

When immigration and visa policy is focused on screening people for communicable diseases and records of violence that constitute threats to others, honest people will gladly comply and enter through the front door, removing the financial benefits for people who currently provide the numerous back doors. This will make it easier to focus on the people who are actually threatening the security of Americans. Eliminating welfare entitlements and creating jobs by slashing government spending will insure that the influx of new immigrants will enhance, rather than detract from, America’s economy.

Of course, no matter how hard we try, some terrorists are likely to get through, and we know it doesn’t require many of them to cause substantial harm. Fewer of them will try if we mind our own business, but we mustn’t pretend the threat is nonexistent. Thankfully, our Constitution is intended to protect our right to bear arms in our own self-defense.

That right should be immediately restored to airline personnel and acknowledged as a personal right of all Americans. An armed populace is a far better deterrent to terror attacks than foreign military adventurism ever could be. We don’t hear about Israeli airline hijackings anymore because at least two people on each flight are undercover, armed sky marshals. Since terrorists are few in number, an armed populace is, in essence, an army of the many prepared to take on the few.

Ending military intervention in other countries and government-to-government foreign aid that outrages large populations helps us promote free trade, which increases the benefits of peaceful relations between people. We shouldn’t pretend that a pacifist approach is viable in the real world, but Switzerland has managed to avoid the quarrels of Europe for two centuries with a policy of armed neutrality. Given our advantages in terms of both population and geography, such a policy is even more workable for the United States, but both the arms and the neutrality need to be in the equation.

With respect to military policy, our focus should be the defense of America. Our troops cannot effectively defend our shores by guarding the 38th Parallel, patrolling the Mediterranean, or flying sorties over Kurdistan. While we must naturally maintain the ability to project force “over the horizon” versus aggressors, our first line of defense is in keeping on our own side of that horizon – in our own yard – as a matter of course.

What should we have done after 9/11? Clearly, we had not only the right but the responsibility to track down and punish the aggressors behind the attacks and destroy their ability to conduct further attacks. We had the tools at hand to do so – the Rewards for Justice Program had previously been successful in bringing terrorists, including 1993 World Trade Center bombing architect, Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, to justice. Bounties work, as we learned in our own history with the use of privateers and letters of marque and reprisal.

Instead, we invaded Afghanistan to pursue “regime change” and “nation-building.” Nearly seven years later, the invasion has become an endless occupation, the new government we set up controls only 30 percent of the country, the Taliban menaces Pakistan – and al-Qaeda’s leadership remains very much at large.

After that, we invaded Iraq to topple Saddam’s Ba’athist regime – a regime that Osama bin Laden ranked second only to the U.S. as an enemy and a country in which al-Qaeda had no significant presence. Five years later, we continue to expend blood and treasure trying to bring peace to a nation we ourselves tipped into chaos. Our occupation provides the only remaining excuse for foreign al-Qaeda fighters to be tolerated by local populations. Indeed, while Shi’ite and Kurdish populations have always opposed Sunni al-Qaeda, even the Sunnis are turning against foreign al-Qaeda forces in areas where the U.S. forces have gotten out of the way. Let’s get completely out of the way.

“When will we ever learn?” is just as appropriate a refrain as it was in the 1960s. I suggest we learn now and avoid the suffering that we will otherwise incur later.

Let’s bring our young men and women home as soon as they can be safely evacuated from Iraq, from Europe, from Japan. Our brave soldiers have volunteered to lay down their lives for us, asking only that we don’t put them in harm’s way unless absolutely necessary. It’s time to support our troops by bringing them back alive.